My mom, despite being an atheist and a lot like R. Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket when it came to child rearing and picking fights with strangers, went to great lengths to instill in me an understanding that to be a halfway decent human being, you have to be willing to do things instead of just talk about doing them. “Try” was a dirty word: you either did things or you didn’t, and if you did them, you did them with grace and gave them your full attention.
(Wait a minute. Was my mom Yoda?)
We often went to midnight mass on Christmas not because we were religious, but because Christmas was Jesus’s damn birthday and if we were going to enjoy the fun bits of that celebration—like presents—we were also going to spend some time thinking about why this religion had caught on in such a big way and what it was about. So from a very young age I sat groggily on unfamiliar pews in December and pondered the meaning of concepts like “goodwill” and “peace,” if only because I was afraid of how much trouble I’d be in if I didn’t.
Ma also made sure we understood concepts like sacrifice and charity. One Christmas nobody in the family was allowed to buy presents because she insisted we pool all our money and give it to someone who needed it more than we did. That was the year I’d first managed to save $50 from allowances so I could buy my sister and mom and dad presents myself. I had a savings account booklet and everything. That was a big deal to me, and I was devastated when Ma told us we were giving all our money to her friend Thelma because Thel couldn’t pay her rent that month. No presents, and Thel wasn’t even especially grateful (I know now that wasn’t the point, of course, but it added extra sting at the time).
Many years later when I was grown up and married, Ma and my husband and I decided to stop celebrating Christmas, at least the way it’s celebrated in the US of A. No present exchange, no big run-up and the concomitant sudden disappointment on December 26 because it’s all over, no big meal to stuff three people who already had more than enough to eat on a daily basis. Instead we’d find a big box and decorate it, then we’d go shopping to fill it up.
We’d buy canned hams, canned vegetables, a box of wine, rolls, candy, a carton of cigarettes, paper plates and utensils and cups and a can opener ...
And we’d take the box full of goodies down to the riverbed where there were always a bunch of homeless guys and wish them a merry Christmas. Then we’d grab take-out Indian food, go home, and show how grateful we were for our ordinary lives by getting on each other’s nerves. We did that every year, often with the help of my nephew, who still remembers the tradition fondly.
Now it’s sixteen years later, I’m divorced and have been happily solo since 2007, both my mother and my one sibling have passed on, and the only family members I’m still in touch with are my favorite uncle’s widow and my sister’s three kids, the youngest of whom just had a kid of her own. My mother and sister both died in December (seventeen years apart), so you might think with all this absence of family I’d find the holidays depressing, but I don’t.
Because my family is all of you.
My family is everyone I know and everyone I don’t know, people I love and people I’d find it painful to be around for more than five minutes. My family is humanity and cats and dogs and plants and furniture and microbes and dust mites and lizards and automobiles and soap suds. Everything in our universe is made of the same stuff and we share a plane of existence, so I always feel connected and surrounded by family. Sounds cheesy and New-Agey, I know, but there it is. What I loved most about Christmas—at least, after life stopped revolving around toys—was its emphasis on goodwill, love, and peace, and turns out there’s a way to have those things every single day. That’s a hell of a gift. It’s one I try to share as much as possible, in my imperfect human way.
My mom wasn’t always right and she was often utterly terrifying, but she cared more about being a decent person than anyone I’ve ever known. I’ll be eternally grateful to her for teaching me that being decent is important … and for “ruining” the occasional Christmas.
Happy holidays, my dears. Every day of every year.